Who Lewis Henry Morgan Was and Why We Should Care

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Formerly a Lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University, Daniel Noah Moses is the Director of the Delegation Leaders Program at Seeds of Peace. His book, The Promise of Progress: The Life and Work of Lewis Henry Morgan, was published in April 2009.

When the pioneering anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan built the family mausoleum in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, after his two young daughters died, he had the words “NONHICSUMUS” placed over the entrance--Latin for “we are not here.”  With his own death, on December 17th, 1881, Morgan’s corpse was placed in this mausoleum. But he is still with us, especially during such turbulent times. 

A railroad lawyer, naturalist, capitalist, advocate for Native Americans, and Republican state legislator, Morgan was also one of the most important American social scientists of the nineteenth-century. The only American to be cited by Darwin, Marx and Freud, he dedicated his life to understanding what keeps society together and what causes social change. He explored the interplay of technological innovation, family and property relationships, the market and the state. He delved into the structure of primitive society and the origins of “civilization.” He was a great theorist of social evolution, of “progress.”

Morgan celebrated the American experiment. He was also concerned and grew increasingly disturbed by what he called “the mere property career.”   

“Our Republic,” he told his audience in January 1852, “is, without question, the most sublime political achievement of man since the creation of the world. Strike out slavery, that Russian institution, which has no more right here than Satan had in Paradise, and our country is Paradise regained, as near as infirm humanity can imitate what Omnipetence created.”

Morgan argued that diffusion of property and opportunity was the greatest blessing, centralization its terrible curse. His vision for the American citizenry was based on the example of the virtuous Roman citizen—before the Empire. At the same time, he celebrated commerce. For him, the unprecedented diffusion of property among American citizens along with vibrant institutions of self-government provided unprecedented scope for liberty and human flourishing. 

As a young man, Morgan led the Grand Order of the Iroquois, a fraternal order of white men who called out to “the Great Spirit” dressed in Iroquois costume. Nostalgia for the “primitive” permeates his scholarly work. His deep respect for “primitive” peoples grew from his belief that they lived by the virtues embodied in the Greek and Roman classics: they were brave and hospitable; they enjoyed liberty, equality and fraternity; they were not driven by greed.  Morgan’s beloved Roman poet, Horace, wrote, “Apollo: all I ask is what I own already,/and the peace to enjoy it, sound in body/And mind, and a promise of honor/In old age, and to go on singing to the end.” Scratch out the reference to Apollo and, from Morgan’s perspective, this could have been an Iroquois song.

Yet Morgan believed it was restless greed that drove progress. He urged “savages” and “barbarians” to adapt. The benefits, he argued, were worth the costs.  Like Abraham Lincoln, Morgan believed that, in the United States, wage earning would and should be only a stage of life. The goal: to establish the autonomy necessary for republican self-government. Even as he made this case, though, the country he celebrated was changing. Morgan experienced the unparalleled growth and prosperity; the economic depressions; the vast new opportunities; the social dislocation; the growing consumer ethic; the consolidation of wealth and power.

Americans today who call themselves “conservative” while celebrating the “unfettered” market do a disservice to language, at the very least. As the acidic commentator, scion of presidents, admirer of Morgan, Henry Adams put it—“the Trusts and corporations” were “revolutionary, troubling all the old conventions and values, as the screws of ocean streamers must trouble a school of herrings. They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot.”

The usually exuberant Walt Whitman--once fired from his position as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs for writing poems on the job--wrote: “if the United States, like the countries of the Old World, are also to grow vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations, such as we see looming upon us of late years . . . then our republican experiment, notwithstanding all its surface-successes, is at heart an unhealthy failure.”

Morgan did not offer solutions. Yet in his scholarly work he helped to orient his fellow moderns—Victorians, patriotic Americans, lovers of the classical virtues, lovers of the Sermon on the Mount, anarchists, republicans, traditionalists, Marxists, visionaries, and others coping with social turbulence and harboring a nostalgic pang. He explained, in a manner they found persuasive, how human beings evolve beyond nature to both the splendor and squalor of the industrial (now postindustrial) age. Respect for creatures capable of such accomplishment enabled him to overcome ambivalence about “progress.” Morgan’s faith rested on the collective and accumulating power of the human mind. 

He ignited the imagination of those who wanted to see beyond the status quo. The editor of the popular Frank Leslie’s Illustrated wrote that, without Morgan’s “historic insight the existing forms of property are invested with a certain divine right which gives them a ‘right to be’ without regard to the sources from which they spring and the social ends they serve.” The one-armed explorer, protégé of Morgan, John Wesley Powell, argued that Morgan’s work was a “tremendous thrust at the privileged classes, who have always been a greater burden than society could afford to bear.”

Morgan looked to future generations to go beyond the “mere property career.” He put faith in a revival, in “higher form” of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” His ambivalence about progress strikes a familiar chord, as do his hopes for a synthesis of the benefits of progress with age-old wisdom and traditions.

If most people lived like a virtuous Roman republican, like an Iroquois warrior, like Jesus, the modern economy would disintegrate. Meanwhile, those of us who consume resources at or near American levels confront, as a global tribe, what other peoples have confronted, though at a smaller scale: the possibility that, even without violent conflagration, our way of life simply cannot last.

As we approach the anniversary of his death, in the midst of this Holiday Season (Horace: “Don’t linger; don’t stop to be sensible,/Let a little folly mix with your wisdom,/Be aware of death’s dark fires;/Frivolity is sweet, in season”) imagine Morgan pacing anxiously in that old mausoleum, aghast at the centralization of wealth and power, at the insane and grossly unequal levels of consumption, at the diminished ability of Americans to govern ourselves.

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More Comments:

Elliott Aron Green - 12/20/2009

Engels often refers to Morgan in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. I am not aware of where Marx may refer to Morgan.

Jon Martens - 12/14/2009

Darwin's theories presupposed a divine being which imposed natural laws.

So, I wouldn't go so far as to say his theories are intact.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/12/2009

So, what? Does this fact make them any less great thinkers of their time?
Plus, far from all Marx's and Freud's ideas are considered wrong even within
modern paradigm.

Nancy REYES - 12/12/2009

" The only American to be cited by Darwin, Marx and Freud.."

Well, Darwin's theories are still intact but Marx and Freud are passe...